Thursday, June 11, 2009

Outdoor Dining a Growing Trend in the Shoals

Jim Hannon/TimesDaily
Published: Saturday, June 6, 2009

Linda Austin and Marilyn Lee, co-workers on a lunch break, sat across from one another and discussed health care reform.

They're both professors at the University of North Alabama College of Nursing and opted to eat outdoors as they nibbled quiche and drank sweet tea at McGraw's Coffee Shop in downtown Florence.

"We hate it indoors," Lee said. "How many months do you have to sit indoors during the year? Any chance we get to go outside, we'll take. Plus, we like people-watching.

"Everybody should have outdoor seating. Ideally, you'd have it in the back (of a restaurant) so you don't have to smell the fumes from the cars."

"Right now, it's nice out here - in another month, it will be miserable, so we're enjoying it," Austin added.

Outdoor dining, also known as al fresco from the Italian "in the cool," has become increasingly attractive to eateries and diners alike throughout the Shoals.

On Tuesday, the Florence City Council approved a plan for Legends Steakhouse to build an outdoor dining patio that extends the restaurant onto the sidewalk of Mobile Plaza.

Tray Tittle, general manager of Legends, said the new patio would seat about 40-50 people.

"We're trying to grow this downtown area," he said. "Obviously it's going to be good for us, too."

A preliminary drawing shows a walled-in patio that leaves 6 1/2 feet of sidewalk on Mobile Plaza. Legends has proposed changing the existing water fountain in front of the restaurant into a rock waterfall. Existing planters will remain and outdoor diners will have access to the interior through a patio door.

Legends hopes to install a canopy or umbrellas to protect diners.

Al fresco's numero uno enemy is weather - the summer heat and the winter cold. Other common complaints include traffic noise, pollution and the sense that you may be dining on unfortunate bugs that land in your dish.

But that doesn't detract outdoor diners and restaurants from offering the option.

"Outdoor dining is a must for any downtown to thrive, and downtown Florence is no exception," Ashley Winkle, director of Florence Main Street, wrote in an e-mail response. "We are fortunate enough to currently have seven locations where patrons can enjoy our beautiful weather and a fabulous meal. We want to continue to see restaurants open their businesses up to outdoor seating as it is a favorite for locals and tourists alike."

"It's one of those features that restaurants really try to play up; it's an asset to them," said Jennifer Price, communications director for the Alabama Restaurant Association.

Many new restaurants seek outdoor dining as a hook for their patrons, she said.

When the proposed statewide smoking bill came up that would restrict smoking to 10 feet from the restaurant door, it included patio areas, which caused an uproar from restaurant owners.

"Part of the reason people go out to the outdoor patio areas is to drink and smoke and have a good time," Price said.

Downtown Florence in particular has several outdoor dining areas, from the elaborate bricked patios of Rosie's Mexican Cantina and Quiznos to the casual cafe setup of The Chicago Cafe and Dish.

Outdoor dining exists throughout the Shoals region, from Sweet Peppers in Muscle Shoals to the screened-in porch at Claunch Cafe in Tuscumbia to the tacquerias in Russellville.

Margaret Jackson and granddaughter, Megan Saint, sat outside under cloud covered, 86-degree skies at Sweet Peppers.

"I work inside all day - any chance I get I'm outside," Jackson said as a plate of tortilla chips and Rotel arrived. "It's cloudy outside so that's even better."

Megan gave her mother an update via cell phone on how an orthodontist appointment had gone while waiting for her Reuben.

"It's too noisy in there," Jackson said, pointing indoors and laughing.

Inside, conversation from the lunch bunch echoed in the cool air conditioning.

Jim Cobb, who retired from the Air Force, and Don Terry, a retired Muscle Shoals police officer, were having coffee near the door.

"It's too dang hot out there," Cobb said.

Terry said he usually likes eating outdoors.

"If it's got a little breeze - it's great," Terry said.

Trevor Stokes can be reached at 740-5728 or

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